The horror section at this year’s MAMI Festival was a mixed bag of curiously experimental and downright weird films. We tell you which ones are genuine spook-fests and the ones meant strictly for scaredy cats.
- The Wailing (South Korea)
Director Na Hong-jin’s grisly epic piles on the terror bit by bit, creating an almost overpowering stranglehold of dread in the end. But for the first 40 minutes of its long runtime (well over 2 hours), the movie could pass off as a low-key dark comedy. In part because, Hong-jin grounds the fantastical tale around a relatable character.
The story unfolds in an idyllic village disturbed by a spate of inexplicably violent deaths, attributed by some to a demonic presence. Local policeman Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won), an affable portly fella, is tasked with investigating these crimes along with his partner.
Jong-gu is not a broad caricature like Inspector Clouseau. Instead, he is just a family man in over his head. His initial response to the strange happenings is a sort of bumbling befuddlement, which is amusing enough to make you temporarily forget about the menace lurking around the corner.
Of course, the movie soon shifts gears dramatically to ramp up the threat facing Jong-gu and his beloved daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee, turning in a Linda Blair-like performance). Hong-jin masterfully builds towards the conclusion with portentous unease and stifling suspense. In the final unravelling of its mysteries though, The Wailing overplays its sleight of hand. What you are left with is a clever conceit. Perhaps, too clever.
- Under the Shadow (The UK)
It’s hard to pinpoint what’s more unsettling about BabakAnvari’s Farsi debut,Britain’s foreign language contender for the Academy Awards this year. Is it the creepy djinn that seems intent on tormenting Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her child Dorsa (Avin Manshadi)? Or is it late 80s Tehran, where independent-minded women are viewed as troublemakers? Or maybe, it’s the city where residents expect missiles to rain down on them any moment?
Shideh’s life seems to be suffocating her.She is heartbroken at losing her chance to re-enter medical school because of her activist affiliations during Iran’s revolution. Her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi), who is a practising doctor, is sympathetic but ultimately, dismissive. Shideh’s stubborn daughter is the unwitting recipient of her anxiety-ridden outbursts and outside, her country is engaged in an escalating military conflict with Iraq. To make matters worse, both mother and daughter are being haunted by a ghostly apparition in their home.
Anvari’s film is compelling during its “mother on the verge of a breakdown” mode. When it switches to “mother taking on a monster” mode, it devolves into well-worn genre clichés. In this context, Shideh’s ostensible battle against real evil feels like an all too common nightmare. The triumph of Under the Shadow is that it offers a subtle critique of something more sinister – a soul-crushing existence in a repressed and war-ravaged society.
- The Lure (Poland)
Flashy stylistic flourishes are everywhere in Agnieszka Smoczyńska’sinventive take on “The Little Mermaid” parable. Aficionados of the Disney version should obviously stay away; this film owes its allegiance to Hans Christian Andersen’s folklore.
The Lure is a mermaid vampire musical, often swerving between sharp humour, dreamy song sequences, a tender love story and goth horror. Enchanted by a Warsaw bass player Mietek (Jakub Gierszał),mermaid siblings Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) head to his place of work, a seedy nightclub. The owner of the establishment, impressed by their vocal prowess, hires the sisters as nightly attractions.
The club’s regular patrons are intrigued by these ethereal beauties with giant scaly fish tails (they only appear when water is sprinkled on their bodies) who can belt out catchy disco tunes. Complications ensue when Silver begins to fall for Mietek even as Golden grows tired of her human life.
Smoczyńska’s audacity and ambition in making something that defies neat classification is admirable. In the beginning, the film’s moments of Mamma Mia-style melodic abandon dazzle.As mermaids, Mazurek and Olszanskaalso have a winsome and disarming way about them. But The Lure’s constant switch from musical to gleeful savagery begins to jar with time and the lack of a coherent plot line becomes too glaring to ignore. As avant-garde as Smoczyńska’s eccentric vision is, it could have benefitted from an old-fashioned touch.
- The Similars (Mexico)
There is plenty to parse in Isaac Ezban’s unusual undertaking, which attempts to subvert the classic scary movie narrative. As if to drive home his point of playing with existing tropes, Ezban uses a rain-soaked stormy night in 1968 at a remote bus depot as his backdrop and shoots the film in a fuzzy retro style.
A cast of suspicious types are thrown together, all of whom seem to be in a state of urgency. The central figures in this chamber piece are Ulises (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), who is eager to get to his pregnant wife in the capital city. Irene (Cassandra Ciangherotti) is fleeing an abusive lover. She is joined by Alvaro (Humberto Busto), a young political rabble rouser, and Gertrudis (Carmen Beato), a well-heeled woman whose son Ignacio (Santiago Torres) appears to be dealing with a strange affliction.
As is wont, there is a bizarre deus ex machina in the story, which is cheekily hilarious and disconcerting. The Similars is a sly and smart sendup of the horror staples but it struggles from overuse of its best gimmick. Ezban’s irony and nudge-nudge, wink-wink nod is appreciated but in trying to mock a tradition, his film ends up as a parody of itself.
- The Greasy Strangler (USA)
Sausages (literal and metaphorical) feature prominently in Jim Hosking’s filthy and anarchic debut that is the movie equivalent of a troll showing a giant middle finger to the world.
The Greasy Strangler tracks an odd father-son duo, Ronnie and Brayden, who conduct disco-era tours in a desolate American town. Ronnie, mostly pictured stark naked, has a hankering for sausages, dripping in greasy fat (get it?), and berates Brayden constantly for not using more oil to fry the sausages. When a woman comes in between the two men, Ronnie and Brayden’s relationship is aggravated further. Oddly, this coincides with a greasy man going on the rampage killing people.
No doubt, there might be some who will applaud the director for his deliberate rejection of anything resembling aesthetics and herald his revolutionary vision. Let’s see what that vision involves: a puerile and crude obsession with full-frontal nudity, which serves no purpose whatsoever, barely-funny jokes that are endlessly repeated to annoy and irritate, and a story, which is the cruellest prank of them all.
However offensive Hosking’s derision for basic cinematic conventions might be, what’s truly unforgivable is his contempt for his audience. If you think you are laughing with The Greasy Strangler, the joke is on you.